Reporting from South Bend, Ind. -- USC’s performance through the first half of the season left fans and critics wondering what the Trojans were made of.
If the offense played well, the defense reverted to its 2010 form.
If the defense stepped up, the offense stuttered.
On Saturday night against Notre Dame, the Trojans finally played a complete game.
Or near enough.
Matt Barkley passed for three touchdowns and the Trojans took advantage of three second-half turnovers to beat Notre Dame, 31-17, before 80,795 at Notre Dame Stadium.
“This is huge for us,” Barkley said.
It was huge letdown for Notre Dame and a crowd that packed the stadium for the Irish’s first night home game since 1990.
But USC turned out the lights on the Irish, who had ended the Trojans’ eight-game winning streak in the series with a victory last season at the Coliseum.
USC Coach Lane Kiffin had described that defeat as the worst of his short career as a head coach. He wouldn’t say it, deflecting attention to his players, but Saturday night’s victory was his best and most important with the Trojans.
“This game is more what I thought the season would be like,” Kiffin said as he boarded the bus to leave the stadium. “I thought we’d have to run the ball a little bit and play really good defense.”
USC improved its record to 6-1 and will probably garner a national ranking heading into next week’s showdown with unbeaten Stanford at the Coliseum.
Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck, the Heisman Trophy front-runner and presumed No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, is better than any quarterbacks the Trojans have faced this season.
The Trojans, however, showed they might be up to the challenge.
Safety Jawanza Starling returned a fumble 80 yards for a touchdown in the game’s turning-point play, linebacker Chris Galippo recovered a fumble and cornerback Nickell Robey intercepted a pass and shut down Irish receiver Michael Floyd. USC also limited the Irish to only 41 yards rushing.
Meanwhile, Barkley and receiver Robert Woods recaptured their groove.
Barkley, who struggled last week against California, completed 24 of 35 passes for 224 yards, without an interception. He connected with tight end Randall Telfer and Woods for first-half touchdowns and then sealed the victory with a strike to a diving Woods in the end zone in the fourth quarter.
Woods rebounded from a season-low five-reception day against Cal with 12 catches for 119 yards against the Irish, who have not defeated the Trojans here since 2001.
“We know in the locker room what we have as a team,” defensive end Devon Kennard said. “To finally put it together and show the world on a national stage is good. But we still have work to do,”
Kiffin had been under fire for his play calling, but he mixed tailbacks Curtis McNeal and Marc Tyler effectively to set up the passing attack. Tyler recovered from a dislocated left shoulder suffered against Cal and was effective early, finishing with 67 yards rushing in 13 carries. The 5-foot-8 McNeal ran for 118 yards in 24 carries, both career highs.
The offensive line paved the way and did not give up a sack.
“This gives us an identity,” Tyler said. “Notre Dame’s defense is all about stopping the run — and we ran all over them.”
Notre Dame (4-3), a 10-point favorite that was riding a four-game winning streak, made a game of it after falling behind, 17-0. But a team that had not committed a turnover in its previous two games could not recover from two fumbles and an interception against the Trojans.
George Atkinson III had raised Irish hopes by returning a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown to make it 17-7 late in the first half.
Notre Dame made it a seven-point game with a field goal 21 seconds before halftime, setting the stage for what had all the makings of another close finish.
Quarterback Tommy Rees had the Irish on the move late in the third quarter when he left the game briefly after suffering a knee injury.
Senior Dayne Crist, from Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High, came on and completed four passes to move the Irish to a first down at the nine. Two plays later, Crist fumbled the center exchange at the one, the ball squirting to the 20, where Starling, a safety, scooped it up and then ran 80 yards for a touchdown and a 24-10 lead.
Rees returned for the next possession, and running back Jonas Gray put the Irish within striking distance with a 25-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
The Irish then appeared to get the break they needed when USC stalled at the Notre Dame 15, and kicker Andre Heidari, who had suffered a leg injury on Atkinson’s touchdown return, missed a 32-yard field-goal attempt.
But USC escaped the threat.
On the Irish’s second play, Rees tossed the ball toward running back Cierre Wood, who was moving in the backfield toward the right sideline. The ball eluded Wood’s grasp, and because he was behind Rees, it was ruled a lateral. Galippo recovered the ball for USC.
Three plays later, Woods dived to haul in a 14-yard touchdown pass that pushed the lead to 31-17.